Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Donate your vehicle to NHPR and support local journalism.

Granite Geek: Flywheels In Vacuums For The Electric Grid (And Why It Might Not Be Crazy)

Jonathan Haeber via Flickr/CC http://ow.ly/AKBvK

There are lots of ways to make and transmit electricity – solar energy hitting photovoltaic panels. Or causing turbines to spin with wind, or fossil fuels.

A Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, company called Beacon Power has been producing power in the last few years in a very unusual way. It was so unusual that the company ended up filing for bankruptcy in 2011, even after receiving government backed loans. But it’s back, and David Brooks says there’s some real potential behind its “crazy sounding” technology. He writes the weekly GraniteGeek science column for the Nashua Telegraph and GraniteGeek.org and joined us with more on the company.

What is this crazy-sounding technology? How does it work?

It is crazy sounding, although in a way it’s really, really old. It takes the idea of a flywheel, a spinning, heavy disk, to store energy, which has been around forever, practically. The classic example is a potter’s wheel. They make it out of carbon fiber, so it’s heavy – which you’d want heavy in a flywheel, because that means it stores more energy – and they put it inside a vacuum, and they have it floating with magnetic bearings, to minimize friction, and they spin it up to 16,000 rpms, and they put it in this large, blue cylinder – as I say in my column, about the size of a porta-potty…

That’s an appealing visual.

Not the one they use in their publicity material. [They] put electricity into it to make the flywheel spin, and then you can hook the flywheel up to a generator to bring the electricity back out again. So it’s an electricity storage device – it’s like a bettery, except batteries use chemical methods to store electricity and this uses mechanical.

Is this a catch-all solution, or does this have a particular role in an energy grid like the one in New England?

It does have a particular role – it’s not the equivalent of a long-term battery or energy storage for days or weeks on end. What the technology is mostly sold for right now is to stabilize the grid. You can get electricity, and a fair amount of it, in and out of these things very, very quickly. And that’s important in today’s power grid, because the grid is becoming much more complicated.

From a traditional power plant, like a coal-fired or nuclear power plant, you have a fairly predictable output of electricity. You know the amount that’s going to be coming from moment to moment, you know the amount that’s coming all day. Unless something horrible goes on, you can plan. That is definitely not the case with wind and even solar and some other issues. The grid has gotten more complicated, keeping it balanced. And what these are good for is providing those little bursts of energy, or taking little bursts of energy off the grid – when there’s a little bit more or a little bit than you need. Keeping in balance. Frequency regulation is the term, and it’s increasingly important.

So you might see something like this in this state down the road.

It’s distinctly possible. I think the market for these is sufficiently new that they’re still developing it – obviously it depends on how much they cost and what sort of a return of investment you can get, so it will be finances as much as the technology.

But the technology is just so very cool – it’s neat to see it having come back to life. And it is paying back most of the taxpayer loan it got – not all of it, but most of it, so it is to some extent a success story in terms of government investment in new technology.

Is there any type of power production you’d like to see not necessarily because of cost or environmental benefits but simply because it’s really cool?

Wouldn’t you love geothermal? I mean, wouldn’t you really love to stick a pipe into the ground and have power come up from volcanoes underneath you? I’m talking about real geothermal, not the heat exchange stuff that they call geothermal. There’s a very slight chance of it somewhere around the Conway region, if you drill way down, there might be enough temperature down there to make it. But realistically, unfortunately, we will never be able to go out back and drill and have heat from magma come up and power your house. Although that would be very cool.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.